How Teaching Methods Have Changed:
The first legal education institutions were founded in Europe as early as the 11th century, and it was common for students to receive their schooling by merely observing in the courtroom. Later, the common form of legal education included students hiring instructors to teach within the student’s home, adding a moot-court style lecture and retaining the traditional observation-style training.
During the 17th century, apprenticeship-style training became the typical method of instruction and mocked the style of teaching that apprenticeships in other trades utilized. The practice of studying law was not common until later, with the advent of the William Blackstone era.
Legal education was slow to catch on in North America due to resistance toward the hierarchical legal system in England, but the United States eventually began an apprentice-style legal education system, originating in New York. During the 18th and 19th Century, apprenticeships were commonplace to help lawyers obtain the level of competence necessary to serve the needs of their clients.
How Teaching Methods Are Changing:
The modern method of legal education focuses on the teaching of law as its own discipline, as well as to help law students develop practical skills. Today, students in their first year typically receive the Socratic treatment in classic courses such as contracts, torts, and constitutional law. After first year, the trend seems to be that many courses are not taught with a Socratic style.
Although many law schools are moving towards providing students with experiential education as part of with the development of clinical programs, only around a third of grads report participation in clinical studies during law school. Clinical studies provide students the opportunity to work with real clients as part of their legal education.
Externships are another avenue for students to gain experience, which place students in a hands-on working environment outside of but during law school; externships have become slightly more common than legal clinics.
Finally, skills based courses such as Appellate Advocacy, Trial Advocacy, and mock trial or moot court competition teams are generally allocated course credit. Teaching methods in law school have become very formalistic and the majority of law graduates never have the opportunity to engage in experiential education.
Practical Experience in Legal Education is Indispensable:
For law students of schools that do not offer practical experience through clinical programs, externships, or other education providing real-world experience, a newly hired law grad may find him-or-herself in a state of shock upon receiving the first assignment. Personally, I think that experiential learning is an increasingly important part of legal education, and it is this type of education that mocks what the early apprentice-style education tried to accomplish.
WVU College of Law offers a variety of clinical courses where students can obtain practical experience working with real clients. WVU requires that all students take Appellate Advocacy, and students have the opportunity to compete for a spot on Moot Court, or to compete in the annual mock trial competition. In my limited personal experience at WVU, I found a course called Pre-Trial Litigation particularly practical and interesting. Pre-Trial litigation assists students in assuming the role of plaintiff or defendant, drafting relevant documents and motions, and conducting the interviews and depositions that take place before trial. Also offered at WVU is the opportunity to participate in public service externships, or a federal agency or judicial externship. Professor Haught and Jennifer Powell are great resources for more information about externship opportunities.